Last night, I rewatched “Face Off,” Breaking Bad’s Season 4 finale, to prepare myself for Season 5, which kicks off on Sunday. That episode exemplifies the show’s best elements: its precision plotting; its readiness to imbue a minor character like Saul Goodman’s receptionist with the ability to change the course of events with a random act of extortion; its patience and willingness to devote long, tense stretches to scenes of people watching each other; its long memory for personal slights and its understanding that revenge is more satisfying the longer it incubates.
It almost made me forget the things that drive me crazy about the show. In Season 4, my main complaint was a vague feeling of flabbiness. It seemed to me that showrunner Vince Gilligan had material for 10 great episodes, but not enough for the 13 in the season. There was nothing slack about “Face Off,” though. It reminded me that Gilligan can do tension better than just about anyone else. And with this final season coming in two eight-episode tranches, I’m hopeful that we won’t have to worry about the show getting lost in its own languors this time around.
I love Gilligan’s confidence in viewers’ ability to piece things together without overexplaining, and I love that he trusts us to remember small clues planted years before. I don’t always feel those clues are properly deployed—the Lily of the Valley poisoning in Season 4 felt far too underbaked; it should be feasible for viewers to read the signals before they’re spelled out for us, and I don’t believe that was possible with Brock’s poisoning—but I appreciate the compliment to my intelligence.
In the off-season, I’ve missed Walter White—his character aggravates me like no other. He’s a walking endorsement for the benefits of science and study—chemistry will make you rich, solve your problems, and vanquish your foes—but his combination of cluelessness and arrogance drives me up the wall. He’s almost autistic in his inability to read people, and yet he is always utterly convinced that he’s the smartest guy in the room. Heck, in the state or maybe even the world. Walter’s inability to keep his pride in check will surely be his downfall; I’ve always been convinced that his middle name is Hubris. But Bryan Cranston plays him like a champ—he never breaks character to be showier, sexier, or less schlubby than Walter needs to be.
This season, I’ll really miss Tio Hector Salamanca. The way he lured Gus to the Casa Tranquila nursing home, allowed him to think that he was finally going to silence that damned bell, and then, just as Gus was about to administer a no-doubt fatal injection, used the bell to set off Walt’s explosive device was masterful. The payoff of the scene with Gus’ Terminator-like walk through the door took attention away from Hector and denied Mark Margolis his exit applause. But that plot twist is an example of the kind of overreach I sometimes see in the show. Again and again we see Walt unable to read people’s emotions, as a man whose only methods of persuasion are desperate begging or brutal threats. Yet he convinced Hector to become a suicide bomber? Walt understands the appeal of revenge, I guess, and Hector didn’t need much persuading.
I’ll also miss Gustavo Fring. His quiet, measured ways set the tone for Season 4, just as more frantic drug connections, like tweaky Tuco, gave earlier seasons a more desperate, frenzied pace. Of course, Breaking Bad is forever circling back on itself, so it’s possible we’ll see Gus again—Gilligan suggested as much last October in an interview with the New York Times’ Dave Itzkoff. One of my favorite things about the show is that the past is never quite done. There is almost always an “oh shit” moment, when something that appeared to be settled explodes like a jack in the box and comes into play all over again. I suspect we’ll get a lot of those little explosions this season, and I hope Giancarlo Esposito adjusts his tie one more time.
Walt’s final words in Season 4 were “I won.” I’m sure he’s wrong about that. This isn’t a game that can ever end. I don’t know how Walt and Jesse will cook meth again, now that Gus’ lab is destroyed and they lack an entrée into the drug trade, but it’s hard to see how they could go straight, even if they wanted to. Walt is a great, great chemist. It would be a shame to deny him a chance to use those skills, and the car wash doesn’t require much lab work. Jesse was really benefiting from Mike’s mentorship—but it’s not like he’s going to join a junior executive program.
So I’m looking forward to seeing how Walt and Jesse reinvent themselves, but most of all, I’m looking forward to spending more time with Hank. He is a model for us all: a dogged, dedicated son of a bitch. This show has put him through the wringer. I just hope he realizes how close he is to Heisenberg.
Looking forward to watching Season 5 with you.